The wrong kind of awareness.
It’s probably happened to all women. It recently happened to me when I made a homecare visit to a patient’s house, and she introduced me to her son. But the setting could be at the office or at a party. You are introduced to a man for the first time. The man doesn’t meet your eyes, doesn’t reach out to shake your hand, doesn’t say hello. Instead, he first rakes your body with his eyes to check out your legs, your breasts, your physique. It might be unconscious on his part, but he does it anyway. It might be entirely conscious, and when he finally does meet your eyes, they may show an approving leer or a dismissive sneer. You stand there and realize several things at once. You are aware of feeling uncomfortable. You know you’ve been judged, sized up, checked out, based entirely on how you look. Your personhood has been violated and dismissed. You doubt that this man will take anything you say seriously. Whatever redeeming qualities he may possess, you know that, in a fundamental way, he’s acting the part programmed by our culture, which is to act like a sexist jerk, just like the hundreds of other sexist jerks you’ve already met in your life over the years. What is unlikely is that you will say something. You’re used to it, too used to it. You’re busy, you have other things to think about, you have work to do. You try to ignore it and move on. But you store the encounter in that repository of shame, anger, fear, and frustration that every woman lives with from the day she is old enough to be aware of the threat that such encounters represent.
And these encounters are just the tip of the iceberg. In the past several weeks, we’ve all been made painfully aware that the mindset of rape culture reaches all the way from our courts to our presidential election. But its reality is hardly new. Back in November of last year, writer Gretchen Kelly wrote about it in the Huffington Post. She described the ugly truth, that “this is what it means to be a woman. We are sexualized before we even understand what that means. We develop into women while our minds are still innocent. We get stares and comments before we can even drive. From adult men.[…] We learn at an early age, that to confront every situation that makes us squirm is to possibly put ourselves in danger.”
Recently, a 2005 recording was released in which the GOP presidential candidate demonstrated the depths of his sexist depravity by asserting his belief that he was entitled to engage in sexual assault. Following this, Kelly Oxford invited women to tweet their first experience of sexual assault. A day later, she reported that she’d had over 9.7 million Twitter responses from women, many of whom saying they had more than one story to tell.
What does this have to do with breast cancer awareness?
For eight years, I’ve been speaking out in this blog not only about the corporate merchandising that exploits breast cancer, but also about the sexualizing, objectifying slogans, games, products, and so-called awareness campaigns that reduce a deadly, incurable disease to a prurient party about breasts. And for eight years, many of us can attest only too well that, despite our best efforts, these tone-deaf endeavors continue, and that many men and women, including some who have experienced breast cancer, fail to understand why we object to this ceaseless crap. “Lighten up,” we are told.
And why do we object to it? Why can’t we just “lighten up” and brush it off? Because, people, it’s part of the same culture in which men think they have a right to leer at our body parts and disregard our very existence. It’s part of the culture that produced a presidential candidate who bragged that his star status permits him to walk up to strange women and “Grab them by the pussy.” It’s part of the culture that obscures genuine awareness of breast cancer with exhortations to save the ta-tas, the hooters, the boobies, everything but saving the women and men who will die of this disease when it metastasizes.
It’s part of the culture in which the corporate donors of possibly the best-known breast cancer fundraising organization in this country evidently think there’s nothing wrong with raising money for breast cancer ‘awareness’ by selling sex toys, or by inviting women to show up at nightclubs in pink bikinis. It’s the culture in which that same organization has been loathe to revise the happy, pink image of survival it orchestrates at its fundraising events by including those who will ultimately not survive. And when that organization does finally invite someone with metastatic breast cancer to speak at one of these events, she is advised beforehand that “parts of my speech might ‘terrify’ the newly diagnosed in attendance and those sections should be deleted.”
But we should be terrified. Indeed, we are terrified. When 113 women and men die every day in this country of metastatic breast cancer, when the number of these deaths each year has not appreciably changed in decades, we ought as a society to be not only terrified, but ashamed.
We ought to be ashamed of a culture in which a judge gives a rapist a six-month sentence, stating he was concerned about the impact that prison would have on a man who assaulted an unconscious woman, but not evidently concerned about the impact that being raped would have on his victim. In light of that, perhaps we ought not to be surprised that this same culture can claim that breast cancer is the “sexy” cancer; that people can regard mastectomy and reconstructive surgery as merely “a free boob job;” that a pitiful, single-digit percentage of breast cancer research funding is spent on metastatic breast cancer, when up to 30% of those who are diagnosed with early breast cancer will develop metastases.
But we really must, by now, realize that this is unacceptable. It is abhorrent to define the disease that kills over 40,000 people each year entirely by the breasts in which it may first appear. We must acknowledge that trivializing breast cancer with campaigns and slogans that objectify women is an insidiously cruel, demeaning, perverse form of misogyny. And that we are obliged to reject it, as loudly as we can, as long as it takes to change it.
*Go the this link for the origin of the phrase, “basket of deplorables.”